Max Verstappen has dealt another hammer blow to his rivals’ hopes of challenging Red Bull after sweeping Friday practice ahead of the Formula 1 Saudi Grand Prix.
Having spent the last few days battling a stomach bug, Verstappen was absent from Thursday’s media sessions after arriving late in Jeddah, but any lingering effects proved no problem for the Dutchman as he clawed his way to the top of the two timed meetings on Friday – The RB19 tank proves effective both in daylight and at night.
Red Bull had much more to back up their early credentials and the Milton Keynes team showed excellent pace in their longer simulations in the second half of FP2. As such, it’s hard to back any of the other teams who might have been hoping to factor into the mix to finish on the podium, unless they can rely on the intervention of a higher power to stop a race in Sunday’s race.
The story of the day
In the afternoon FP1 session, Verstappen posted a 1m29.617s to go almost half a second faster than team-mate Sergio Perez, but the usual caveats about the night F1 races he’s used to in the Middle East apply when it comes to track conditions.
Trackside observations showed that the RB19 remains tightly sealed to the road even through the most difficult high-speed corners, and both Verstappen and Perez could nail the redesigned Turn 22 with absolute ease.
While the corner has less bite than its previous iteration, requiring a few more clicks down on the downshift paddle to get the right amount of torque on the exit, the two were able to walk the line perfectly. Neither risked incurring the wrath of those responsible for monitoring the track’s limits, as was their mandate for a compliant car.
With ambient conditions pushing the mercury into 30C, escalating track temperatures, Red Bull’s dominance in the first hour of running could be taken with a grain of salt due to the cooler conditions in the evening. But for the other nine teams, there was no such luck in FP2.
There, Verstappen again flexed an advantage over the rest of the field. He was just 0.014s off his best lap of the summer, clocking 1m29.603 on a set of soft tyres, but remained relatively trouble-free. Fernando Alonso, continuing to impress in his early months at Aston Martin, more than halved the deficit faced by Perez – but was still more than two tenths behind the Red Bull by the end of the soft tire in FP2.
A stomach bug didn’t slow down Verstappen, who topped both of Friday’s sessions
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
In particular, Verstappen seems confident enough when dealing with the Quickfire sled after Turn 4 and, approaching Turn 9, the Dutchman felt confident enough to add an extra stab to the throttle before slowing to make the most of Turn 10. the Mercedes duo and Fernando Alonso relaxed earlier before turn 9, while Leclerc has to get up slightly earlier and maintain the throttle position to slow Verstappen as slowly as possible.
Alonso continued to look at ease behind the wheel of the AMR23, however, and it’s clearly a machine that fits him like a glove. His 1m29.811 took him into Red Bull territory in the box-office hot lap phase of FP2, suggesting that in qualifying, he can at least provide some degree of upset to the rampaging Bulls.
F1 Saudi GP – FP2 results
|1||Max Verstappen||Red Bull||1m29.603s||29|
|2||Fernando Alonso||Aston Martin||1m29.811s||+0.208||26|
|3||Sergio Perez||Red Bull||1m29.902s||+0.299||26|
|7||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin||1m30.110s||+0.507||27|
After a difficult Bahrain, Alpine offered encouraging pace as it hopes to realize its ambition to challenge the Ferrari-Aston Martin-Mercedes trifecta. Esteban Ocon was fourth fastest ahead of George Russell, with Pierre Gasly also within half a second of Verstappen’s benchmark behind them.
From data seen by Autosport, the suggestion is that Ferrari were not operating at full capacity during their soft tyre, with the straight-line speed disadvantage to their direct rivals suggesting that the engines had been switched off. As reliability concerns have multiplied on Leclerc’s side of the garage in recent weeks, resulting in grid penalties for a new energy depot, this could just be a decision to err on the side of caution.
In this data, the Mercedes showed a comparative lack of cornering power due to the decision to run at a lower level of downforce. The team were able to keep up with their rivals in terms of straight speed, but the slower sections of the track were at risk for the Ferraris, who had a small delta with the Red Bulls in the braking zones.
Mercedes is still losing cornering time compared to its rivals
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
How strong is Red Bull in racing?
Verstappen and Perez split on their longest runs in the second half of the session. The former was tasked with exploring the limits of the soft tire which, although initially quicker, began to show a marginal deficit to Perez midway through. The two compounds are relatively evenly matched, according to Pirelli. although the soft tire will naturally provide an earlier drop point and this will be exacerbated at higher fuel loads. So there are suggestions that there may be multiple teams willing to explore a starter in the middle lineup.
Alonso’s longer run on the medium tire was initially in line with Perez’s efforts, but the Aston Martin driver experienced a slightly larger drop in pace and was around half a tenth behind the Mexican after six laps in the same yellow boots, while Peres’ times continued to drop.
Ferrari’s long-term pace looks steadier, but the engine power level warning still applies – Sainz did six laps on the same mid-range line-up, but this was split into two low-fuel laps and three laps towards the end at a higher level fuel. So Leclerc’s 15-lap run has been used in the table below of average lap times on the medium tire as a more representative indicator of his pace. His run, like Alonso’s, has been far less consistent than Perez’s – but the Scuderia appears to be in a similar space to the Aston Martin and Mercedes teams.
However, Alpine’s pace should not drop – and if the team can continue their pace in Sunday’s race, they could be a real threat to those fighting for the final podium spot based on Ocon’s times on the grid. Gasly’s 12-lap soft run was on par with Verstappen’s 16-lap soft pass towards the end of the session. Mercedes should also be in the mix, depending on whether the move to a higher downforce set-up yields a stronger race car, but could jeopardize the team’s qualifying ambitions.
Average long-term pace on medium tires
*McLaren, AlphaTauri made long runs on soft and hard
But while Red Bull are playing their cards close to their chest and Verstappen suggested a lower-down race than Bahrain could bring the team together, there are very clear signs the team is ready for another strong result in Saudi Arabia. The picture may change, of course, but few of the other competitors expect to have any hope of beating last year’s title-winning team.
Verstappen and Red Bull remain the ones to beat in Saudi Arabia
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Quotes of the day
Max Verstappen: “We had a positive day. But there are still several things we can do better. We are closer to each other, but that is only due to tire management. They don’t really let you push here at the moment so with a low grade track then I think the lap times are all very close. So it’s definitely not like Bahrain…”
Fernando Alonso: “I think Friday is not always very representative, also in Bahrain we were ok like P1 on Friday, and then we were P5, almost P6, in qualifying. So you never know until we go to the qualifiers. But we tried what we wanted to try in the car. I think it’s still not an ideal balance, so we still have to chase some grip tonight. But yeah, so far so good. It’s another good start.”
Sergio Perez: “Learning the conditions from FP1 to FP2, they always tend to change. Therefore, it was necessary to read well. We had a problem with the car mechanically, which hopefully we can sort out for tomorrow and it will bring us a bit more pace, hopefully, at least we can get a better idea of where the car is at. It was a bit inconsistent and hard to get a proper read today, but overall, we look to be strong. But the competition is there as expected.”
Could Alonso challenge the Red Bulls in qualifying?
Photo: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images